October 16, 2018

Split Rail Fence – Laramie, Wyoming

White. A blank page, or canvas… That’s what the computer screen looks like tonight. So many possibilities. Or so much space to be filled up with random words. They may coalesce together in sentences, or there may be a rare Wankel rotary engine that falls in there. (And five points to whomever gets that obscure reference). I’m lying here in bed, old episodes of ‘The Office’ playing on Netflix and dreading the fact that I have to get up at a ridiculous hour to catch a flight. Of course, that flight is to Laguardia and I have a long weekend in Manhattan this week to look forward to. This means I’ll try to get back to my nightly travelogue and story telling as I have promised folk to keep that up when I am away from home.

I went to the theater this past weekend to see a production of ‘The Laramie Project’. It was a high school production, done by Indian Springs School under the direction of my old friend Dane Peterson. For those who don’t know, it’s a play telling the story of the murder of Matthew Shepard and the impact that had on the town of Laramie. The play was created by members of a New York theater group, the Tectonic Theater Company under the direction of Moises Kaufman, who went to Laramie in the aftermath of the murder and did in depth interviews with those involved, using their words to shape the story of three young men, Matthew, and his murderers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, probing the social milieu and tensions that allowed the crime to happen.

The play, later made into a film for HBO, has become a staple of college theaters over the last few decades. It’s subject matter and the emotions that it brings up in both cast and audience, however, are far beyond what high schools attempt and I was amazed at how well those kids could tap into the story and those individuals and lay themselves bare on stage at their ages. These are kids who were not yet born when the crime took place. It’s as ancient to them as the Eisenhower presidency was to me at that age. But they took up the challenge and led the audience through the story. A story of pain, suffering and questions in which the three central figures never appear on stage. All that is there are projected titles, a few chairs, and a section of split rail fence which, in its own way, has become an icon of martyrdom.

Being as aged as I am, I, of course, remember the Matthew Shepard case vividly as it was unfolding in real time via US and world media. It was October of 1998. Steve and I had finished up our summer of job hunting and coming to grips with the end of our life in California. I had taken the leap of faith and signed with UAB and we were in the process of making our plans for relocation to an unknown place and culture. We had decided we needed a little R and R before we finished selling the house, packing and moving so we had cashed in our frequent flier miles and hotel points for a week on Maui. We had planned on a few days of sunshine and nothing to do, but the Shepard case – the brutality of the crime, his eventual death, the arrest of the perpetrators, the grace of his parents – were inescapable that week anywhere a television was on.

We both felt incredible pain at the whole situation. I think because it was a slap up the side of the head reminder that, as gay men, we were not safe in our own country. The Clinton era had led to a certain amount of progress in gay rights and visibility and the two of us had reveled in it and assumed we were going to live in a more enlightened world. We spent a lot of time mentoring younger gay men, encouraging them to be out and comfortable with themselves and to not be afraid. The Matthew Shepard murder revealed to us that we had been lying to ourselves. It made us question whether the sacrifices and activism we had been involved with (in Steve’s case for more than thirty years at that point) had actually meant anything. I didn’t figure it out until much later, but we were mourning the loss of our home, friends, jobs, and time in California and this became entwined with mourning a death of hope for a better world, symbolized by a small town college student tied to a fence in rural Wyoming.

Andy and Steve – Hawaii

We came back from Hawaii, threw ourselves into packing up the house and doing all the thousand and one things one has to do when uprooting from one place to another. We didn’t speak much about it, but we both knew we were asking ourselves the same question. Did we make a mistake taking this job and moving to the deep south, a region even more unfriendly to LGBTQ people than the mountain west? That small town murder, to which I had no personal connection (other than having visited Laramie once as one of my best friends from high school had been a grad student at the University of Wyoming), completely colored my attitude towards my move to Alabama and how I viewed what I found when I got here.

While I was watching the play, the first time I have actually seen it produced on stage, odd memories and waves of emotion would roll over me. I thought of the last time I walked out of the house we shared in California (the only place I’ve ever lived that I truly miss), of sitting in a beach condo on Maui with Steve crying after hearing of Matthew’s death, of stories I’ve heard about Tommy’s pushing for better services and treatment of LGBTQ people in the wake of the HIV epidemic, of how I felt when I learned that my best friend from my time in Seattle in the 80s had been murdered, of how the best way to cope with grief is through shared feelings and times I’ve just needed to be with others, even if I’m not saying much.

Theater has the power to move us in unexpected ways. It’s the direct connection between audience and performer that’s always fascinated me and why I’ve always been drawn to it over film. May it continue to move me, both on and off stage.

Much theater coming up the next few days. I shall make a full report…

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